Magazine article The Spectator


Magazine article The Spectator


Article excerpt

Brittan, Scots and witches From Professor Carl E. Armerding

Sir: Those of us who believe that the question of truth is best addressed by revealed religion have come to expect periodic broadsides of the sort represented by Samuel Brittan's essay on the ill-effects of religion (`Religion is bad for you', 25 March). But we wish he, and those like him, would be more even-handed when considering the totality of religion's influence, and less superficial when assessing the difficulties we all face in overcoming evil.

That religious folk have often behaved badly is hardly news. Nor is there anything novel in the revelation that authors and composers, like Verdi, have created characters who are both religious and badly behaved, though the observation may reveal more about literature and music than religion. In any case, it proves only what religious folk, or at least Christian folk, already know, which is that all humanity suffers the effects of sin. The moral gap is as real to religious people as to anyone else.

At the end of the day, the question is not whether some, or even many, religious people have behaved badly, though I suspect C.S. Lewis got it right when he suggested that the only fair comparison was Mr A. prior to becoming a Christian with Mr A. after becoming a Christian. The question that won't go away, despite Brittan's protests, is whether the world can look forward to any real and lasting reformation of character apart from the resources of God's reforming power. Christians, who readily acknowledge that they are sinners, think both history and theology give a clear answer.

Carl E. Armerding

Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, 107 Banbury Road, Oxford

From Mr Sebastian Robinson

Sir: While I very much enjoyed Samuel Brittan's anti-religious set-piece, he should be aware that the figure he quotes of 4,500 Scottish women having been executed for witchcraft over a 100-year period in the 17th and 18th centuries is of doubtful reliability. The late Christina Larner, who researched the subject very thoroughly, concluded that the estimates made by previous historians, ranging from 3,000 to 4,400 for the period 1590 to 1662, were much overstated, and that the likely total was something over 1,000 (see her Enemies of God: The itch Hunt in Scotland, 1983); though even this reduced total is about twice the number of those executed in England over the same period.

One thing does support Brittan's thesis that all religions tend to be similarly dangerous: the Scottish witchfinders, while firm in their Protestant faith, used the nastily Catholic Malleus Maleficarum as their operating manual. From this one might conclude that (to paraphrase the cynical French jibe at politicians) two bigots, one of whom is a Catholic, have much more in common than two Catholics, one of whom is a bigot.

Sebastian Robinson

7 Kirklee Gardens, Glasgow

Expiring perspiring From Mr ES. Turner

Sir: Paul Johnson muses on the conditions in which the human head can give off steam (And another thing, 25 March).

There was an impressive example to be seen in the criminal dock in Dublin in 1795 when the Revd William Jackson, libeller, blackmailer and spy, was awaiting sentence for high treason. According to a life by Thomas MacNevin, the prisoner was in such a state of perspiration that `when his hat was removed a dense steam was seen to ascend from his head and temples'. This phenomenon may have been caused less by a state of apprehension than by the effects of a powerful poison Jackson had taken in order to cheat the hangman, in which he was successful.

E.S. Turner

21 Woburn Court, Stanmore Road, Richmond, Surrey

From Mr Leonard Toboroff

Sir: Paul Johnson's remarks on the de Gaulle/Galbraith tete d tete at the Kennedy funeral lunch (And another thing, 11 March) as one example of the attenuation between the tall and the short, would have been sharpened considerably had he included their famous exchange at the lunch. …

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